Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Soft power and US foreign policy

Tarik Oguzlu, 

image (not from article) from

One of the most discussed concepts in the academic field of international relations is “soft power”.

According to Joseph Nye, the eminent American scholar who coined this concept in the context of US foreign policy practices, “soft power” is the ability of states to get what they want through the power of attraction and persuasion, rather than the power of coercion or payment.

Theoretically speaking, for the actor A “to have” power over the actor B, the former should have an influence over the preferences and behaviors of the latter.

Capabilities that might potentially enable states to have power over others can be both tangible and intangible, such as military hardware, economic capacity, population, geographical location, natural resources and the image/perception that states have in the eyes of others.

Countries might possess these capabilities in abundance, yet their mere existence does not automatically translate into states’ ability to affect the choices and behaviors of others. Having power over others is something different from being powerful in terms of capabilities.

Whereas power capabilities can be measured and quantified objectively, the task of assessing to what extent one country has power over another requires an in-depth analysis of the interaction between the two.

That said, having power over the choices and actions of others might emanate from different power capabilities.

In the context of the power of attraction, the positive image that states have in the eyes of each other does the trick.

The positive image emanates from, according to Nye, culture, political values and foreign policies. Here, the actor A does not even need to engage the actor B to impact its actions.

B would align its choices and actions with those of A automatically and voluntarily because the former would be attracted to the latter. A would get what it wants without doing anything. This is the most cost effective and ideal/utopic power relationship to exist.

The manufactured power of attraction, on the other hand, stems from purposeful and intentional investments of countries in their international image and legitimacy.

Here, the country A does something to help increase its power of attraction in the eyes of the country B without engaging it directly. Employing various branding strategies and marketing national stories in the global market of narratives are of vital importance. In the age of global interconnectedness and information, what matters is to help manufacture attractive narratives.

While some states such as China, Russia, Brazil and India spend a lot of time and money to manufacture national narratives in a top-down manner, some others, such as the US, do it in a bottom-up manner through the agency of non-governmental organisations and civil society.

To Nye, the reason why the United States has for long topped the list of soft power countries is the civil society input in this process. In the context of the power of persuasion, “having power” would originate from the successful use of diplomatic capabilities with a view to helping convince others to the appropriateness and legitimacy of one’s own narratives, choices and behaviors.

What is required for the state A to help convince/persuade the state B is the employment of deliberate argumentation, direct diplomatic engagement and trust building.

The diplomatic language that states use and the way how they treat each other would matter a lot in this regard. “Normative power” EU is seen by many as the ideal example of this category, though recent years have witnessed a radical erosion in EU’s normative power identity.

In the context of power of temptation/enticement, states’ power over others originates from their “civilian power” identity.

Here, the country A would try to coax and cajole the country B through enticement strategies.

The most effective way of doing this is to offer economic rewards and punishment selectively. Economic carrots and sticks would be employed in order to have an influence on the choices and actions of others.

The EU’s relationship with would-be members and the application of the conditionality logic that it applies to its relations with candidate countries is the best example in this regard.

For long, the EU’s ability to help transform those countries lying in its peripheries in the image of its values and norms has stemmed the instrumental reasoning on the part of the targeted countries that redesigning themselves in European image would yield more benefits than costs.

As of today, the EU seems to be far away from the heyday of its civilian power identity amid various internal and external challenges. In the context of the power of coercion, one talks about “hard power” Here, the power of states to get what they want would emanate from their coercive capabilities. Here the country A would simply dictate/impose its preferences onto the actor B and the latter would do what the former wants because of fear. The power of coercion manifest itself best in US foreign policy practices, despite the fact that US has simultaneously been the country possessing the highest degree of soft power for long.

In the real world, it is neither possible nor appropriate to place countries into one single power category. All states, no matter how big and powerful they are in terms of their capabilities, tend to evince a mix of all these power relationships in their foreign policies.

With Trump being elected as the US president and given his foreign policy performance during the first eight months of his presidency, it would not be wrong to argue that the soft power credentials of the US have deteriorated.

The image of the US under Trump’s presidency has worsened and many polls conducted across the globe reveal that trust in US’s global leadership has declined steadily.

Compared to Obama’s global ratings during the first year of his presidency, Trump’s performance is undoubtedly discouraging from the soft power perspective. Rather than investing on power of attraction and power of persuasion, Trump seems to believe that power of temptation/enticement and power of coercion would yield more benefit to his country.

Trump cut the budget of the State Department and truncated the official money transfers to other state institutions in charge of international development and humanitarian aid.

Many high level posts in the Department of State are still vacant and the exodus from the Foggy Bottom still continues. The money spent on cultural and public diplomacy has been in decline while Pentagon has been given extra money in addition to its immense budget.

The way how he deals with the North Korean problem and sees nuclear weapons in global politics also suggests that he is not a soft power guy.

The writer is a Member of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Antalya Billim University in Turkey.

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